I sometimes wonder if we’re letting too many issues get in the way of relationships.
A friend of mine recently shared a story. A marriage is on the rocks because of political differences, she told me, lamenting with sadness that she didn’t know how to help. I was surprised to discover that these sorts of relational difficulties are not entirely uncommon.
Reading about how politics is disrupting marriage leads to other reading. Advice columns are popping up about how to have conversations in family gatherings during the holidays, where inevitably, someone’s “weird uncle” will rile everyone up with his difficult political views.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about all this is just how significant politics seems to have become for all of us in the last decade. We are deciding who we’ll associate with and what ideas we’ll even consider on the basis of politics and often nothing else.
Even our closest, presumably most important relationships are at stake. Marriages are collapsing. People are exiled from their own families. It’s as if, like Lilliana Mason describes, politics have become a primary form of identity. She argues that we’re sorting ourselves—yes, dividing ourselves up socially—according to our politics.
We live in a world where many of us are constantly seeking to reduce persons to very specific identity categories like race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or, as we’ve already seen, politics.
These sorts of labels, whatever conveniences they many offer, also function to divide us. In a world where the ostensible goal for so many is to bring about greater equality, justice, and human flourishing to ALL people, it’s remarkable to notice just how significantly the labels we use function to divide us. If we’re seeking to enhance human experience universally (that is, for everyone), then dividing people according to label seems like the first significant step away from that vision, creating more opportunities for generating “us vs. them” mentalities and not fewer. The concentration is on the differences, rather than the similarities. If our focus is there, how will we ever achieve the same good for everyone?
Having politics in common is all that matters? It’s no wonder that many of us are lonely and often feel like we don’t belong. Because of the labels, our social web is disintegrating. New versions of segregation are emerging, with the relationship between groups defined not just by difference but also with a deep-seated sense of bitter hostility toward one another. Indeed, I think we are letting our “issues” prevent relationships.
Must we be divided?
If you spend time on social media or watching the twenty-four hour news cycle, it almost seems imperative for us to conduct this sort of social sorting. There’s a moral pressure we experience to participate in the ongoing division.
It’s hard to say when it began. But now it seems we’ve slipped over the edge, past the event horizon and are being pulled inescapably into the vortex. Having reduced people (and ourselves) to mere political or other identity labels, we’ll soon be reduced further. The crush of this black hole will occur when our identities are finally established as worthy or unworthy, according to the fashionable orthodoxy of the moment. In fact, this appears already to be happening, as more and more people are socially ostracized, their reputations irreparably damaged, because of something they said, wrote, believed, tried to understand, or because they were seen with the wrong person, in the wrong place, even reading the wrong things or following the wrong celebrity. We try to escape, but the options feel limited to social death or joining a Borg-like hive mind, parroting the orthodoxy just to survive.
There is reason to be concerned about all of this. And in fact, many of us seem more than just concerned but in fact, exhausted by it all. Shockingly, upwards of 90% of us are frustrated by how divided we are. On their report “Hidden Tribes,” the organization More in Common proposes that this huge number of us fall into what they call the “exhausted majority.”
Exhaustion of this magnitude begs the question, could there be another way?
Why, whether we are considering politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or other differences, do we constantly let these issues prevent relationships? We exert so much energy to police these boundaries. And yet we’re lonely and left exhausted by it all.
Perhaps there is an escape route after all.
Can Hostility be Overcome?
Once upon a time there was a woman who came to draw water from a well. There at the well when she arrived was a man. The man and the woman were of very distinct ethnicities, and their people never associated with one another. It’s as if they were sworn enemies by default, even though the two of them had never met and no personal conflict existed between them. The woman seemed to recognize this most clearly, knowing simply upon seeing the man that he was one of “them.” The barrier of hostility between their peoples made her hesitant to engage.
Still, it came to be that the man received a drink of water from the woman, for he had been weary from travelling and was thirsty. This simple act of kindness led on to a conversation.
At one point, the man invited the woman to call for her husband. “I have no husband,” she said. Surprisingly, the man acknowledged the truthfulness of the woman’s statement, revealing with his unexplainable knowledge that he was no ordinary man. He continued, “The fact is, you have had five husbands. And the man you are with, is indeed, not your husband.”
Stunned, the woman responded, saying, “I can see that you are prophet.” But the man was more than that.
Their conversation meandered back into the historical circumstances that engendered the differences and divisions between their peoples. All along the way, the women silently struggled to discern who this man really was, for she knew she was engaged in conversation with someone very special.
Finally, the man described a future when the differences between their peoples wouldn’t matter. In fact, the differences and the divisions between all peoples would indeed be transcended by something that all people have in common.
Suddenly the woman felt that the conversation was becoming too esoteric, too complicated for someone like her and this man to discuss. The mysteries they were considering would, she proclaimed, eventually be explained when the Messiah comes.
Now, the Messiah, her people believed, was God’s Chosen One, who would heal and save the world. Certainly, he would undo the effects of the differences and divisions between their peoples, and not only theirs but all people. Yet, the woman found it difficult to believe she could be talking, in fact, to the Messiah himself.
It was at that moment that the man said, “I who speak with you am he.”
Before she could respond, their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the man’s friends, who had gone into the town where the woman lived to buy food. Upon their arrival, the woman left, returning to her town. Along the way she was deep in thought about what she had just experienced.
Overcome with a sense of urgency and awe from the experience, she began telling other townsfolk to “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this man be the Messiah?” In fact, many of the townspeople went out to meet the man. They too were so moved by their engagements with him that they invited the man to stay in their town for a while, despite the differences between their people. And over time, they too came to believe he was the Messiah.
Relationships before Issues
That story is a paraphrase from one of the biographies of Jesus (John 4.1–42).
What is fascinating about this story is how much it stands in contrast to our normal way of operating. In our day, no one would be surprised when someone chooses not to associate with another on the basis of some difference that we’ve decided has to be a big deal. As we’ve said, we have in fact decided this has to be the case about any number of different issues, including ethnicity, religion, race, politics, gender, sexuality, and more. We have chosen to let these issues divide us and prevent relationships, and we often feel as if we must operate this way.
But this story reveals that it doesn’t have to be this way. It helps us to imagine other possibilities.
Two different elements of the story help with this:
First is Jesus’s demonstration of a different form of engagement. His way of engaging helps us to imagine a new possible way of engaging.
Despite what Jesus knew of the woman—despite the “issues” that might normally cause us not to associate with someone like her (replace her “issues” of adultery or ethnic difference with your “issue du jour” concerning people you avoid)—Jesus did not let those issues prevent a relationship. In fact, the biography of Jesus in which this story is recorded suggests that Jesus specifically chose the direction of his journey in order to pass by the well where he and the woman had the conversation, subsequently leading to Jesus spending a few days with even more people like her in the town. In other words, he sought them out for the sake of relationship despite the issues.
Second is the fact that we can put ourselves into the shoes of the woman. Jesus and the woman at the well had never met before, yet he was nevertheless able to tell her “everything she had ever done.” He only knew this of course, because he is God. Truth be told, because Jesus is God, he knows everything we’ve ever done too. That can be massively intimidating to take in. It’s convicting in a way that words cannot fully express. But that’s not the last word.
Despite the fact that Jesus knows everything we ever did (he knows every nanometer of our being)—despite that fact that he could consider all those things to be issues which would prevent a relationship—he seeks us out anyway, just like he did the woman and, subsequently, her fellow townsfolk. In fact, he seeks us out for the very purpose of initiating a relationship! And that relationship with him reveals something significant.
Jesus not only sets aside our “issues” so that he can have a relationship with us. Rather, he erases them altogether, freeing us from whatever burden they have been to us in our lives. The specific “issues” that I’m referring to are often called “sins” by Christians. Miraculously, undeservedly, by the very grace of God, Jesus seeks us out so that our sins will be separated from us as far as the East is from the West. At the same time that the distance from our issues is expanded infinitely, Jesus draws infinitely close to us to tell us he loves us.
Jesus’s way of approaching relationships offers us the possibility of relating to others (even those who are radically “other”) differently. In fact, his non-conformist, counter-cultural approach is apropos in our polarized age. It’s a breath of fresh air for those of us who are not only frustrated but exhausted by how divided we are. Jesus’s approach offers us a revolutionary strategy for actually loving our enemies, undoing hate, unwinding antagonisms, and promoting a world where everyone truly is able to flourish. He has come to include you in this movement of healing. And surprisingly, we find ourselves healed along the way.
If you’re frustrated and exhausted by how divided we are, check Jesus out. He never let an issue prevent a relationship.